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'Trade, not aid': Illinois farmers would prefer lasting solutions to cash relief

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Cory Ritter poses for a photo in a soybean field on his farm in Blue Mound.

While many Illinois farmers said Tuesday they appreciate the $12 billion emergency aid package promised by President Donald Trump, they would rather see the president reach long-term trade solutions that allow them to sell their products.

The plan Trump announced would tap existing Agriculture Department funding for temporary relief to farmers who were hurt by his administration's trade disputes with China and other countries. The president earlier this month enacted 25 percent tariffs on Chinese products worth $34 billion, causing China to retaliate with the same tariff percentage on American goods worth $34 billion, including soybeans and pork.

Illinois farmers were particularly hurt by soybean tariffs because the state is America’s largest grower of the crop that is used in farm feed, cooking oil, tofu, soy sauce and dairy product substitutes.

But the state's Farm Bureau said Trump’s relief package would not make its members whole in the face of continued trade tensions, although they appreciated the support. Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. said in a statement that the damage would continue as long as the tariffs are in effect — if not longer.

“That’s why we urge the president and the administration to continue to negotiate trade deals with our global partners, including Mexico, Canada, Japan and the European Union,” Guebert said, “and get back to the table with China to work on resolving unfair trade practices that are the underlying issue.”

Trump plans to discuss trade Thursday during his first trip to Illinois since taking office. He will visit Granite City, where about 800 employees have been called back to work for U.S. Steel Corp. since the president announced in March that he would be place tariffs on foreign steel.

Soybean farmers want “trade, not aid,” said Lynn Rohrscheib, chairwoman of the Illinois Soybean Growers group.

“If trade is our problem, aid handouts are a poor solution,” Rohrscheib said in a statement. “As producers, we would rather be able to sell our crop for a fair price and grow both agricultural export and market opportunities.”

Cory Ritter, who operates a farm on about 2,000 acres of land in Blue Mound, said the relief Trump talked about would help, but he likes to take a “wait-and-see” approach to any government program.

"I'm a free market guy,” Ritter said. “I think the president's long-term plans would benefit the U.S. farmer, but the dramatic two-dollar drop that happens with tariff threats and actions are making a tough ag economic time even tougher."

Ritter said he’s aware that trade negotiations don’t happen overnight, but he hopes the president can be encouraged to work toward a final solution when it comes to trade with China, and "not just a Band-Aid on a big cut."

He added that the tariffs could hurt the true value of soybeans, which could push China to seek trade opportunities with other soybean-producing countries like Brazil or Argentina if it can't get a fair price from the U.S.

Rob Albers, who grows corn and soybeans on several hundred acres in Blue Mound, said the temporary fix would help while the government works out a long-term trade solution.

“This will help in the short-term,” said Albers, who is vice president of the Macon County Farm Bureau. “But we (farmers) would much rather have our trade deals fixed, to have NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) working again and to share our grains at a fair price.”

Albers said he hopes the eventual solution will lead to better trade deals, but he’s not optimistic that it will come right away. While any help farmers can get is beneficial, better trade with China is ultimately the goal.

"We don't really need any gizmos ... just let us have a fair price for our crops,” he said.

Wall Street gave the agricultural sector a modest boost with the news, as shares of Archer Daniels-Midland Co. and Tate & Lyle rose slightly after the announcement. Deere & Co. ended with a 3.2 percent gain. 

In a statement. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Trump’s “scorched-earth trade war” has put a lot at stake for Illinois and the rural economy.

Soybean farmers have told Durbin that they've seen their crop value drop by 20 percent in recent months, he said.

“Bailouts, tweets, and bragging won’t save the lost crop value for our farmers and won’t protect their reputations around the world as reliable sellers,” Durbin said in a statement, adding: “Declaring a trade war on the world, instead of the truly bad actors, leaves a lot of collateral damage.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Taylorville Republican, said in a statement that he appreciated the commitment to farmers being made by the agriculture department to help farmers as the country re-negotiates its trade deals.

"Many of these same farmers have told me they are willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt while the President works to negotiate better trade deals," Davis said. "But we will need to see results and I look forward to seeing the details of Secretary (of Agriculture Sonny) Perdue’s plan next month."

A spokesperson for Davis also confirmed the congressman would be with Trump during his Thursday appearance in Granite City.

— Lenore Sobota contributed to this story.

Contact Jaylyn Cook at (217) 421-7980. Follow him on Twitter: @jaylyn_HR

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